Schools Monday: The Most--And Least--Bang for the Buck
Everybody knows--or thinks they know--that the D.C. public schools waste more money than most school systems have ever seen. The common mythology is that the city's schools spend more for less than any other system in the land. That's not quite the case, but close enough--the District's overall spending per student is third-highest in the country, according to the Post's investigative series on the system. And the D.C. schools rank first in the land in the portion of spending that's devoted to administration and last on the portion that goes to instruction.
But you sort of knew that. What you may not have known is that in a Forbes magazine analysis of spending by 100 school districts across the country, it was the Alexandria city schools in northern Virginia that got the least bang for their buck--that is, they spent the most per student as compared to student performance. Forbes weighed per student spending against college entrance exam scores and graduation rates. The result put Alexandria in last place, with $11,404 in spending per student against only 73 percent of students graduating from high school (this is one issue in addition to her poor handling of her DUI arrest that helped drive the new school board in Alexandria to get rid of Superintendent Rebecca Perry.)
Another Washington area school district landed right near the very top of the Forbes list. Montgomery County schools are in fifth place in the nation by this measure, with $8,824 in per student spending, but a 91.4 percent graduation rate.
The D.C. schools, by comparison, came up in 95th place, third from the bottom, with $10,473 per student spending and a 73 percent graduation rate.
Now hold on, you say--these numbers are very much skewed by the population of a school district. Doesn't affluence and education level of the families in each district play a huge role in determining graduation rates and college entrance exam scores? Sure, there's no better predictor of your performance in school and on tests than who your parents are. And both Alexandria and the District have disproportionately high populations of kids who are living in poverty. But Montgomery's school population doesn't fit the popular stereotype of preppy kids in Potomac and Bethesda, either.
In fact, the Montgomery County system includes one of the largest concentrations of immigrant children of any high-performing system in the country. The Montgomery public schools population is only 41 percent white, and in the southeastern swath of the county where income levels are lowest, 80 percent of students are minorities and more than half the students qualify for free lunch--meaning their parents live in poverty. Even in the more affluent half of the county, 13 percent of students qualify for free lunch and 43 percent come from minority families.
So demographics are not entirely determinative. Rigor of program has a lot to do with results. As MoCo superintendent Jerry Weast says, as the system's population changed, "We didn't bury the rigor, so we got a quality outcome." By requiring students to meet standards well above Maryland's state standards, Montgomery has produced results: Across the country, only 25 percent of 8th grade students are enrolled in algebra or some higher level of math. In Montgomery, that number has jumped from 36 percent in 1999 to 49 percent last year. And as the Post's Daniel DeVise reported last month, in MoCo, both black and Hispanic students outperform the national average for all students in the number of students scoring a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement exams.
Money can of course be helpful in making schools better, but it really doesn't have much to do with outcomes or the classroom experience. And as the records show in both Alexandria and the District, money can be downright useless.
By Marc Fisher |
July 23, 2007; 7:45 AM ET
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